Sisters in Ireland are celebrating becoming an established regional group of ‘Communicators for Women Religious’ – an international network offering professional support and resources for outreach and engagement with the media. CWR, which originated in the US a quarter of a century ago, now boasts more than 200 members in numerous countries.
The launch of the Irish branch took place at the headquarters of the Religious Sisters of Charity at Sandymount in Dublin with Sisters from several Congregations having travelled across Ireland to be there; Sisters from other countries took part in the launch via an internet link up. The Irish group has already secured charitable funding for media training and the members are enthusiastic about engaging more pro-actively to tell their story and having a framework for greater collaboration.
A pilot group has been meeting in Dublin for over two years to plot the way forward; participants have been mandated by a variety of Congregations to be communicators of the religious life stories of their institutes. Several are also lay women already working in communications for Congregations or in vocations promotion. In October the Executive Director of CWR, Nicholas Schafer, travelled from Chicago to join the pilot group for a two day conference in Dublin. An invitation was extended to other Religious to find out more about CWR. Sr Thomasina Finn RSM observed: “The negative story in Ireland started 20 years ago and has prevailed now for at least nine years as the established narrative. There is still no countervailing public voice. The positive stories are told only in private.”
Sr Patricia Lenihan is on the Board of CWR, having been involved with the network for eight years: “I am very happy that we have reached this stage. It has been wonderful to have such a committed and enthusiastic core group who have been a source of energy and support to each other since we began. My hopes for the group are that it will develop and grow and be a resource for the women’s religious congregations in Ireland. A place where sisters/communicators can go to get help with media training, whilst supporting each other and helping with issues that are particular to the way women religious are portrayed in the national media.”
CWR holds an annual conference in the United States with a broad range of speakers and workshops. Members of CWR, internationally, represent over 150 congregations and individually serve in communication ministry, leadership teams, mission advancement (fund raising) and vocation ministries.
Group facilitator Sr Marie Stuart RSM said the October conference was a key step in the development of the Irish group: “Nick Schafer listened as the story of CWR in Ireland unfolded through the voices of those who had been present from the beginning, two and a half years ago and from new voices interested in being a part of the venture. He gave the assurance that CWR is committed to the empowerment of its members and how funding could be made available for CWR training projects.”
Sr Una Agnew SSL, another group member, recently experienced media engagement, having responded to an article in The Irish Times which posed the question: “Just what is the nuns’ side of the story?” In the wake of the distressing revelations of recent years about mother and baby homes, the author of the newspaper article – Professor of History at University College Dublin, Diarmaid Ferriter, argued that Congregations need to be much more open about the past, but also that “we have not got enough sense of the perspective of the religious sisters involved in running institutions” and “we certainly need more balance and the avoidance of cartoon depictions of any Congregation.”
The article also referred to a recent edition of the Jesuit quarterly ‘Studies’ which reported on a conference last year on the history of women involved in religious life – emphasising the need to establish “foundations for a fuller narration” of the nuns’ stories: “The terrible damage that was done by some nuns purporting to act in the name of the gospel is acknowledged, but it is argued that those failings have been “allowed to become the whole story” and UCD’s Deirdre Rafferty, a historian of education, highlights a “vast, and largely undocumented legacy” in the fields of healthcare, education and the missions.”
Sr Una, who is Professor Emerita of Spirituality at the Milltown Institute in Dublin and also an expert on the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, felt a gauntlet had been thrown down. She responded with an immediate letter to The Irish Times in November: “Damage done by a few must be acknowledged and repented but cannot be allowed to become the whole story. It’s already a hopeful sign when Dr Ferriter’s female academic colleague from UCD, with her positive story about women religious, is given prominence in the press and that Studies dedicates a full edition to “the nuns’ story”. It is also healthy for the reputation of all academic work that “fuller narration” is requested so that bias might be challenged.”
“It is important too that changing “contexts” might be considered essential to research. The contexts of our lives as religious over the years have changed enormously, a fact not easily grasped even in the academic sphere, where context is crucial to authentic research. “
Sr Una added: “Many religious today are witnesses to many different contexts, political, social and religious, that could scarcely be fully understood by modern generations…..If history is to be written correctly, it must embrace all narratives and contexts which will allow posterity to make a fair assessment of the services religious and their lay colleagues have given, (with many happy memories), to shape the heart and soul of our country.”
CWR website : https://c4wr.org/
To contact the Irish group, email: firstname.lastname@example.org